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Taking a stand pays off

April 1, 2009
by James Gresham
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A treatment center finds benefits from entering the legislative process
Illinois state capitolIllinois State Capitol

Can corporate social responsibility improve patient care and overall program success? Or is it simply one more line in the expense column?

Many healthcare organizations struggle to accomplish their primary missions to successfully treat patients and still operate healthy businesses. These same businesses may benefit from a “social adjustment”-learning to better balance patient care and civic accountability. Finding that balance, however, can be a challenge.

The answer may lie in a corporate responsibility program that accomplishes multiple goals at one time. Timberline Knolls did just that with efforts aimed at improving access to its specialized residential treatment for women and adolescent girls living with eating disorders, addictions, and other emotional disorders.

A financial crisis for potential patients

The professionals at Timberline Knolls help women and girls with a number of emotional disorders, including eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Yet each year hundreds of potential residents were unable to gain admission for financial reasons. In short, their healthcare coverage did not include treatment for eating disorders.

Physical illnesses were covered by their insurance plans and, as required by Illinois' mental health parity law, a number of serious mental illnesses were covered as well. Yet people facing severe illness and potential death were left without the help they needed because insurance companies were denying coverage for eating disorder treatment.

Considering the depth and breadth of these illnesses, this lack of coverage was not only penny-wise and pound-foolish, it was flat out unfair. In the United States as many as 10 million women and 1 million men are fighting a life-and-death battle with anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Eating disorders are potentially deadly, biologically based psychiatric illnesses. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, nearly 12 times greater than any other cause of death among women between age 15 and 24.

Working the legislative system

Mental illnesses, eating disorders, and addictions are real and treatable diseases. They should be covered just as equally as conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. With that in mind, Timberline Knolls saw an opportunity to work for better access for eating disorder patients.

Last year Illinois legislators introduced House Bill 1432, which was designed to strengthen the Illinois mental health insurance parity law by providing fair and equal health insurance coverage for those suffering from anorexia and bulimia. Passage of this lifesaving legislation would dramatically improve the healthcare situation for Timberline Knolls' current and potential residents.

We launched an aggressive campaign supporting the legislation's passage. This included a series of press releases and media advisories urging Illinois citizens to contact their state senators and representatives to show support for the bill.

But we did not stop there. This effort offered an excellent opportunity for our current and former residents to become involved, furthering their mental health and treatment goals. Some women chose to speak publicly for the first time, testifying before the legislature and encouraging their friends and families to make calls and send letters. By talking about their illness, these residents strengthened their resolve and shook off the stigma that has plagued those with eating disorders.

It was a hard road for everyone involved. After much work, the bill passed both the House and Senate, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the legislation, as he wanted broader mental health legislation. Thankfully, after further lobbying, the legislature overrode the governor's veto. Together, we opened the door for treatment to all. Shortly thereafter, Congress approved federal parity legislation.

The circle is complete

At last, eating disorders were recognized as illnesses worthy of equal healthcare coverage in Illinois. Suddenly, those who silently suffered from eating disorders were given a fighting chance for recovery from this disease (The law took effect January 1). But at Timberline Knolls, our work was just beginning.

In just a few months, volunteers from Timberline Knolls had teamed up with NEDA to launch the STAR (States for Treatment, Access, and Research) Program in Illinois. The first program of its kind in the state, STAR fights for improved access and treatment for eating disorders by working with state legislators, mobilizing the community, and developing a grassroots effort to increase the awareness of eating disorders.

Prevention and early intervention programs are virtually nonexistent in Illinois. That's why STAR is so important, as it will help establish this component of education and treatment to complement the recent legislation making treatment available. By developing a local and statewide grassroots initiative, the collective voices of individuals with eating disorders, family members, and other loved ones can help share a message of hope and acceptance with the community. The program will provide families, friends, and educators with the ability to recognize how they can support those who may be suffering.